Friday, August 6, 2010

The ghost in the machine

I have been reading The rise and fall of the soul and self: an intellectual history of personal identity by Raymond Martin and John Barresi (Columbia UP, 2006). The basic theme is that just as the idea of the soul has disappeared from scientific explanations of behavior (and from most people's thinking) so the idea of the self (which replaced the soul) is now being questioned if not rejected.

Much of the book, especially the later chapters, focuses on scientific research but philosophical approaches are also covered extensively. One thing that strikes me is the extent to which 20th century psychology was unscientific insofar as many theories and  approaches clearly serve as vehicles for individual (value-laden) points of view rather than contributing to a gradual increase in understanding (as truly scientific work tends to do). I was impressed at how well the Anglo-American analytic philosophical tradition seemed to stand up when compared with certain branches of psychology, and with much continental philosophy.

The gulf between the Anglo-American and continental styles of philosophy is brought out in an anecdote featuring the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle:

'...Ryle attacked not only the Cartesian idea of a self distinct from the body - "the ghost in the machine" - but the very idea of an inner life. In The Concept of Mind (1949), he argued that all meaningful talk of mental episodes - "twitches, itches, and twangs," even a person's being angry - was not about anything private to a person's interior life but about bodily "dispositions to behave."

In  the 1950s and 1960s, in England, ordinary-language philosophy, whose hallmark was to deny the inner life, came into full bloom. Meanwhile, on the continent, phenomenology, whose focus was the examination of inner life, was gathering steam. There was little love lost between the proponents of the two approaches. At a conference, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in a conciliatory gesture, remarked to Ryle, "But are we not doing the same thing?" Ryle responded, "I hope not!" ' (p.244)

67 comments:

  1. The idea that "mind" is the modern philosophical replacement for "soul" is spot-on, in my opinion. At least there is some physical basis for "mind," which makes it more amenable to science. I've been suspicious of psychology as a "science of mind" for the reason you point out: in short, there are too many versions.

    On the other hand, I don't completely agree with the Francis Crick fierce-reduction strategy of The Asonishing Hypothesis that says "you're just a bunch of neurons." That view has difficulty accounting for individual differences in content: neurons are biologically the same (assuming normal brain funcion) from one individual to another, but responses to stimuli are not. And some "responses to stimuli" include thoughts, the contents of which wildly differ among individuals. So my critique of neuroscience is, it might explain function but since it does not adequately explain content, it cannot form a complete explanation of "mind." It's possible to maintain, then, that mind and body are not exactly one and the same -- until somebody explains exactly how. We'd need a science predictive of content. Some believe we can MRI this problem into submission and "read minds" (for instance), but to really predict content, we'd have to predict creative thoughts -- including even such as Einstein's theory or H.G. Wells' prescient literary invention/anticipation of the atom bomb, Dante's "Inferno" and Gilbert Ryle's critique of mind. Until this can be done, I'll remain a mysterian (if not quite a phenomenologist, a concept I understand only on Tuesdays, in a good mood after a long night's sleep and after three cups of coffee).

    All of which is to say this particular subject fascinates me and, being a moral philosopher, I think it is fundamental also to understanding ethics.

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  2. I'm certainly with you on phenomenology - I don't really get it either. Could not 'differences in content' be accounted for by environmental and social factors creating a unique pattern of neuronal connections for each individual?

    I'm interested in the term 'mysterian' and what you mean by it. I know Martin Gardner identified as one. And Colin McGinn?

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  3. Hi Mark,

    I got your note about my Ryle post--I presume you meant this one. The Martin and Barresi book you mention looks like a good example of how badly Ryle has been misinterpreted over the years. He certainly doesn't argue against the existence of private experiences or an "inner life." And he does not equate the mind with the body.

    (By the way, yes, Colin McGinn is counted among the "mysterians," but I think his argument for that position is a great example of question begging.)

    GTCHristie,

    I don't see why we need to be able to accurately predict all of the complex behaviors which produce philosophy and science before we can overcome the confused idea that minds have some mysterious causal properties. Ryle's point (which you wouldn't know from reading most summaries of his views) is that minds have no causal properties at all--minds are in a logically different category, which is not to say that they don't exist. They just exist in a different way, as dispositions.

    By the way, I am not persuaded by any of the qualia arguments (which, I gather, motivate your claims about function and content).

    I'll be away for a couple weeks on vacation, but I'll be happy to continue this conversation when I get back.

    Regards,

    Jason

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  4. Jason - I posted the little piece on intelligent behavior (which is based on your essay) some hours after you visited. I would like to talk more. I think I share your general orientation but I do have some doubts about the scope for fruitful work in the area.

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  5. I guess it depends on what sort of fruit you're looking for. I don't think it's the job of philosophy to bring forth new fruit, so much as to get a better grasp of the fruit we've already got.

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  6. Nicely put. Very Wittgensteinian, and, I guess, Rylean. By the way, what do you think of that Ryle/Urmson discussion film?

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  7. Hadn't heard about that. I'll watch it asap.

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  8. I love the bit about the rabbit who may be angry (because another rabbit has run off with his wife (!)) but not indignant. I don't mind Ryle's perverseness (I like it) but I have the sense that his world is a bit too - I don't have the word - narrow? donnish? even schoolboyish? tied to his arguments with his brothers? Can he be a model for today? Perhaps more importantly, I think that kind of philosophizing was supported as a profession in the context of the time, but will not be today.

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  9. I watched it a couple weeks ago, but haven't had time to post until now.

    Ryle does come across as heavily shielded by the walls of academia--though that's probably true of a great many professional philosophers, both then and now. (It's one reason I abandoned my graduate studies in the field.)

    I was a little disappointed by the film. I don't think it is a good representation of (or defense of) Ryle's ideas. It comes across more as a haphazard assemblage of recollections about some aspects of his philosophy, and not as the vital activity of a working philosopher. He doesn't seem to connect well with the challenges laid before him, and his responses would understandably seem easily dismissible by somebody who wasn't very familiar with his work.

    I think the quandry about the value of philosophy is an important one, and Ryle's response is not very satisfying. Not that I disagree with the substance of his attitude; I just think he could have given the question a more serious--or deeper--treatment. But, as with the whole of the film, it seems he is content to have a casual conversation, somewhat nostalgic (in his own mind), and isn't trying to do any real philosophy.

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  10. Nice to hear from you again, Jason. My only (slight) reservation about what you say is the notion of 'real philosophy', which assumes what I am wondering about, i.e. the worthwhileness of work in the area (if there is an area). I did not know that you had abandoned graduate studies in philosophy (for European Studies, is that right?). Funny, when my thesis was just about complete I almost made the switch out of a philosophy department into European Studies (they thought my work could fit in with them with a few small modifications). Anyway, I will continue to try to work out what I want to focus on in the future (I'm not in a position to do serious work now). I'd like to keep in touch with you. I'll check your blog from time to time - though I see you are very busy at the moment. All the best - sounds like you have a pretty interesting life at the moment.

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  11. Thanks, Mark. I quit my grad studies philosophy program back in 1999--not for another program, but just because I had to get out of there. I avoided academia for a very long time. I started this European Studies thing last year, more out of convenience than anything else. It's a long story. I wanted to go back for philosophy, actually, but didn't have any good opportunities. I think the European Studies program might be better for me, anyway.

    About "real philosophy," I think there definitely is an area, if loosely defined. It's pretty clear that, for example, Hume and Kant were doing philosophy. It's also pretty clear that Ryle's published work is philosophy. The difference between that work and what we get in the film is this: in the published work, Ryle is creatively engaged, trying to change the way we think about logical and conceptual problems through sustained arguments and illustrations; in the film, he is only alluding to some of those past arguments, without offering anything new and without carefully reconstructing the old. He doesn't seem very engaged with the ideas he's confronted with--if he were, he might have seen why his responses weren't so satisfying to a lot of people. I think I'm being charitable when I say his conversation is a little too casual, a little too lazy, to count as real philosophy, as opposed to reminiscing about philosophy.

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  12. Yes, much as I find the non-indignant rabbit amusing, I must say the film does not do Ryle credit. Didn't he write a favorable review of Heidegger's Being and time, warning that he feared where it would lead? I feel a bit the same about Ryle's kind of philosophy - I am not as confident as you that it can be sustained in the context of today's world. Hume and Kant were doing philosophy in a world at a very different intellectual stage (I am thinking of the progress of science). I think my view is that there will always be a place for philosophizing, but that it will be done in a rigorous and professional (if you like) way mainly by experts of one kind or another philosophizing in the context of their respective areas, e.g. philosophy of physics, meta-mathematics, philosophy of history, etc. I am open to your suggestions however (about conceptual problems etc.), but then even you were not happy in the academic-philosophic context (there are no doubt factors I am ignorant of); and I also think of Wittgenstein who didn't believe in a professional philosophy.

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  13. Well, I didn't have a very good idea of what philosophy was about when I was in grad school--a fact which explains why I chose a very, very wrong school and why I didn't know what to do with my intellectual self afterward.

    Compartmentalization and specialization are already present in philosophy today--but I don't see this as discontinuous with the kind of work Ryle was doing, or Hume and Kant, for that matter. Some of Ryle's work can be categorized under "philosophy of mind" and "philosophy of language," and I think this work is still relevant among philosophers (and other specialists) who touch on those areas (such as psychologists, cognitive scientists, and so on, as well as linguists and what have you).

    We've got philosophers specializing in the philosophy of history, of physics, biology, mathematics, logic, language, and so on, and philosophers in one area often cannot understand the work done by philosophers in another area. This phenomenon happens in the hard sciences, too. It doesn't imply a fundamental discontinuity.

    I agree that the progress of science shapes the philosophical landscape, but I still think there is a great deal of continuity between Hume and Kant, on the one hand, and Wittgenstein and Ryle, on the other, and between all of these thinkers and any specialists in any area of philosophy today.

    As for academia . . . I do think philosophy tends to be far too academic, but it doesn't have to be, and isn't always.

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  14. Maybe I want everything to be too neat, but I still baulk at embracing philosophy somehow. I think to a large extent philosophy has been defined in recent years by what people in university philosophy departments do and, as you say, there is specialization happening. But I am inclined to see the historical process of the peeling off of the various sciences from philosophy as leaving in the end - nothing essential. Philosophizing can be done by specialists in their own schools (physics, psychology, linguistics, etc.). I tend to see philosophy as an independent discipline as being parasitic on religion - in a world without the metaphysical or religious dimension philosophy as such would fade away. I am aware however that there are all sorts of issues relating to how to live, but I guess I despair of dealing with them in an intellectually rigorous way which might lead (like science) to some sort of consensus or convergence.

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  15. I don't think it's about religion so much. As long as we remain ignorant and confused as to the nature and scope of thought, there is cause to embrace philosophy.

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  16. I'm still not sure to what extent we need philosophy as distinct from science. I have learnt a lot about how my brain works (a bit anyway) from accounts of brain research and social psychology. I can see there is a philosophical dimension to the question of the scope of thought, but can this be handled within specific fields (such as meta-mathematics)?

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  17. We might say the distinction between philosophy and science is kind of like the distinction between grammar and language. You can study grammar, and regard it as a distinct discipline, but you're still studying language. Do we need grammar as a distinct discipline, apart from language? Well, there's clearly value in regarding grammar as such.

    By the way, I don't think thinking is necessarily most fruitfully studied by studying the brain. That, itself, is a philosophical issue.

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    1. This is what I meant above. Thinking is a physical process, or it could not occur. But what is in the thought - the content of a thought - is a different issue. On this page, we are all thinking. But we express unique ideas. The process is predictable, but the product is not. "Mysterians" are those who believe there's more to a thought than just thinking. I don't like the label, but I do like that distinciton.

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  18. Also, as for the scope of thought being handled within specific fields . . . that would make sense, if every possible field was already established. But I don't see why we should think that is the case.

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  19. Mark, you may have learned quite a bit about how your brain works from brain research and social psychology. But how useful was that knowledge? In my experience, to know how thinking occurs in the brain adds nothing to my ability to think. Is it different for you? Likewise, social psychology may give us generalisations about how people commonly think, but what value is that to us?

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  20. Jason, yes, the 'grammar' of thought: but that suggests a 'language of thought' - and I don't want to start on Fodor et al.! The brain (in context - social and otherwise) does all our thinking, does it not? So if studying the brain per se is not enough, then extend the scope of scientific study to the rest of the body and other bodies and communication etc. Is this not sufficient?

    On your other point, I am with you I think. Philosophy (in my view) can pioneer new fields, then as they mature they become science.

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  21. Alan, the useful knowledge relates especially to the extent to which our conscious thought is driven by sub or unconscious processes; and in particular work on the way we get things wrong. E.g. not understanding ourselves (and what might make us happy, etc.) as well as our friends or even acquaintances might. (Admittedly, insightful people have always known this.) Apparently we have a tendency to over-estimate our own abilities (and other qualities) compared to those of others - sobering research indeed!

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  22. Mark, I don't think pointing out the similarities between philosophy and grammar in any way suggests a "language of thought." Not at all. What I am suggesting is rather Rylean--and Fodor was anything but a Rylean.

    Also, I don't think the brain does all our thinking, just as I don't think the brain does all our tennis playing, or all our speaking, or all our sleeping. These are not simply neurological events, though I grant that we couldn't do them without our brains. (Again, Ryle is instructive here.)

    Finally, I wouldn't say that philosophy can pioneer new scientific fields, but it can help us understand them. By doing philosophy, we're grappling with--and trying to clarify--the boundaries between knowledge and ignorance, and between sense and nonsense. As a discipline, this can be distinctly studied and investigated, and it cannot be reduced to the methods, principles, or practices of any particular science.

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  23. Jason, I'm glad we can leave Fodor aside. I was just trying to flesh out the grammar analogy, really. I don't know a lot about Fodor.

    I didn't say the brain does all our thinking - I said the brain in context (of body, the physical environment, the social environment). So I don't think we necessarily disagree here. Do we?

    Your last paragraph leaves me a bit confused. I have been thinking about these issues a lot and would like to get them settled - in my own mind at least. Metaphysics used to be seen as the heart of philosophy; then epistemology. I reject the former view I think, but am reasonably open to the latter. But I suspect you wouldn't want to see the theory of knowledge as central - or would you?

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  24. I don't see how your "in context" remark produces agreement.

    As for epistemology . . . I think knowledge is central, but only because it is an aspect of thought. I'd say thought and all of its aspects are central to philosophy.

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  25. I am still a bit puzzled. I find the Rylean way of talking about thought appealing, and certainly interesting, but I'm not quite sure of its significance. Is it compatible with physicalism? Is there an agenda here that I am missing? I think you are critical of people like David Chalmers (who does have an anti-physicalist agenda and whose arguments I have found to be very unconvincing). Are you trying to make (or defend) space for non-scientific (but rigorous) ways of talking? I guess my problem is that I don't see the problem with scientific ways of talking!

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  26. I consider myself a physicalist, and I don't think I've said anything critical of science, or scientific ways of talking. But I don't think philosophy is science--though I wouldn't draw a strong line between them; I don't think we have very strong criteria for either. And I do think philosophy, as a discipline, is worth defending. Though I wouldn't defend just anything that happens to go by the name.

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  27. Jason, I like what you say about not wanting to draw a strong line between philosophy and science and also accept that it may be that we do not have strong criteria for defining either. But you talk about defending philosophy "as a discipline" and this leaves me a bit unsatisfied. Is it a (single?) discipline?

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  28. Why not? It has many approaches and subdivisions, and it's fraught with disagreement--even disagreement about what it is for and about--but so do a lot of disciplines.

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  29. "... disagreement about what it is for and about - but so do a lot of disciplines." Well, most disciplines are defined I think by what they are about (plus methodology). Linguistics for example is about language and there are different schools and approaches but they are all focused on questions of human language and take a more or less "scientific" approach. [I know there is or was a school of linguistic idealists who were not so "scientific", and other similar schools, but even they were focused on the same subject matter.] I suggest that philosophy is unique in not having an accepted subject matter (to help define it). I just have the feeling that the "it" you are talking about is an historical amalgam which would no longer be an it if (hypothetically) all university philosophy departments closed down. It is I suspect a discipline which - at least in its present (untidy) shape - is unusually dependent on such structures. I sense there might be something there behind your "it" but I can't see clearly what it is and thus my skeptical remarks.

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  30. It's about thought and thinking. This seems clear to me. I defined it thus on my blog:

    Philosophy is thinking about thinking. It explores the varieties and limits of thought and thinking things. It is therefore concerned with understanding the nature of knowledge, belief, intuition, propositions, judgments, facts, inferences, arguments, reasons, and justifications. To this end, it develops views of meaning, truth, validity, morality, possibility, and plausibility.

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  31. As for disagreement in other disciplines, what about medical science? There is much disagreement about the proper methods of healing the body. What many people call Eastern Medicine is not regarded as medicine at all by many people.

    How about history? There have long been disagreements about the proper methods and purposes of historical analysis.

    How about psychology? No disagreement there over its methods or functions?

    I don't think philosophy is so different. Is philosophy any harder to recognize than psychology or medicine? Surely not.

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  32. Also, I don't think professional philosophers are restricted to the academy. Ethics committees are common, for example. And many philosophical works are published outside of academic institutions.

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  33. Recently, my grandson Hamish, aged 9, asked me, from the back seat of the car, "What is philosophy?" (We'd never talked about this before.) I told him it was thinking about thinking. Then I added, it was thinking about how to think better.

    His reply was great: "So it's thinking about thinking about thinking"!

    My other usual answer is that it is the rational analysis of normative questions. I think that is close to Robert Brandom's view. It entails, I suggest, that philosophy can't be replaced by science or psychology.

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  34. Nice story Alan. Very apropos. I was going to raise the prescriptive/descriptive distinction. The normative is implicit in Jason's word 'justification', no? Regarding Jason's definition, I don't think morality fits very well into thinking about thinking - it is more about putting values of a certain kind on certain actions or types of action. Also when we move from description and analysis to prescription we move into an area where one cannot be an expert in the normal sense.

    I relate the normative to pedagogy rather than research. There is a place for teaching logic, critical thinking etc. in a (partly) normative way. I think students can also be taught to think in a more sophisticated way about ethical issues ...

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  35. Maybe this topic should be continued under the current Unity of Science heading.

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  36. Mark, I don't understand your objection re morality. Your point seems only to be that morality is not thinking about thinking, which is fine--but I didn't say morality was thinking about thinking, so I don't see the objection.

    Also, I'm not sure how cogent your point is about the prescriptive/descriptive distinction. One can be an expert about prescriptions, and there is nothing unusual or abnoral about that. Anyway, again, it looks like you are mistakenly thinking that my definition regards philosophy as morality, or morality as philosophy, when neither is the case.

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  37. By the way, re Alan's story--I wouldn't say philosophy is only about how to think better. It's also about thinking itself. So I don't think your qualification was necessary, Alan. (But it's a good story, anyhow.)

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    1. I liked the story too. Great reply to a little kid, if you want to get him thinking. And the child comes back with a philosophical reply. It's beautifu.

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  38. Jason, I did not say that you saw philosophy as morality. I was suggesting that it was a bit of a stretch to link thinking about thinking to morality (which is more about behavior and action than thinking, surely). So ethical talk would involve thinking about acting rather than thinking about thinking. but I concede you also talk about the varieties and limits of thinking things (and I assume you want to blur my distinction between thought and action in a Rylean way?).

    This might be a better way for me to explain my reservations: the definition as it stands seems like an attempt to pull together a set of topics/themes, some of which seem to fit well together but at least one of which (morality) doesn't. You talk about developing views of truth, validity, morality, possibility and plausibility. Each of these things - except morality - can apply to propositions or strings thereof. (Okay you could say a statement was moral or not, but morality could not be predicated of a proposition or string of propositions in the same way that validity etc. might be.)

    I don't know what you mean about being an expert about prescriptions. What I am saying is that 'expert' in the usual sense refers to people who have specialized knowledge (about and how to).

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  39. Mark - you still seem to think that I am equating philosophy with morality. Under my definition, broadly speaking, philosophy is thinking about thinking. This entails thinking about morality, because morality is a particular type or mode of thinking. It does not follow that morality is thinking about thinking, or that philosophy itself constitutes morality in some way.

    By the way, ethical talk--morality--is not simply talking about acting, but talking about what actions are justifiable. Morality/ethics is about justifications for actions, and not simply about the actions themselves. Justifications are sorts of judgments, and can be thought of as particular types of propositions--or perhaps loosely defined sets of propositions. Philosophers can (and do) quite often talk about moral semantics and propositions, and I see no reason why they should be less inclined to do that than they sould be inclined to speak about possibilities (or possible worlds) in terms of propositions.

    My comment about prescriptions was a response to your earlier comment, which was that "when we move from description and analysis to prescription we move into an area where one cannot be an expert in the normal sense." I don't think that's true. People can be experts about giving advice--doctors, psychologists, etc. They are experts at prescribing behaviors. But anyway, I don't see the relevance of this point to the rest of our discussion.

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    1. I have always said that ethics (conditionally distinguish that from "morality" for a moment, for technical reasons) is about justification. Science is not designed to justify anything, but philosophy is. And although both religion and philosophy might address moral questions (thus tend to get thrown in the same pot sometimes), for religion, justification is built in (divine command), while philosophy must deal as well with justification it's not only about moral behavior, but also what justification is, and what counts as justfication. For me, the religious tar baby doesn't stick to philosophy and, in fact, philosophy has been a long effort to transcend mere faith.

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  40. The easy bit first. Yes I see your angle on prescription. My original statement didn't make it clear I was talking about values etc. I was using the word prescriptive to mean something like normative, and I had in mind areas like ethics rather than general suggestions for action which may of course be based on expert knowledge.

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  41. I see morality in terms of a system of morality embodied in a particular society or a general word for a set of moral or ethical norms. Ethics or moral philosophy involves talking about moral values and systems. I don't know where you get the idea that I equate philosophy with morality. But maybe this doesn't matter.

    I'll need to think a bit more about your talk of moral semantics, but I think my position is pretty clear that I am very skeptical about the possibility of philosophy doing more than clarifying moral views. I don't know if you want it to do any more than this.

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  42. If you are merely clarifying the moral views of a particular culture, I'd say you are doing sociology, not philosophy.

    Moral views are views about the rightness (or justifiability) of actions. Moral philosophy is the attempt to ground, explain, or model the form of this type of thinking. Some philosphical questions about morality are: Can morality itself be justified? What is the nature of the Good or the Just? What are the logical foundations of moral argument? What is the semantics of moral prescriptions? What is the relationship between morality and knowledge and belief?

    Earlier you said that morality was thinking about action. I noted that it's not just thinking about action, but about the justifiability of action. (After all, I can think about skiing, which is an action--but I'm not moralizing every time I think about skiing, am I?) So I hope you agree that morality is about justifiability/rightness, and not simply action.

    What distinguishes moral philosophy is that it is thinking about this whole process or moralizing. Sure, you can say morality is always embodied in a particular society, and that it is manifest in norms. The point is that we're not doing moral philosophy simply by talking about such systems, but by talking about them in a particular way, with particular goals. That is, we are trying to understand the mode of thought which defines (and perhaps grounds) morality as such. We are doing moral philosophy when we talk about the logic and nature of morality itself.

    By the way, I am of the view that there is no logical or theoretical ground for morality, just as there is no logical or theoretical ground for any particular mode of thought or knowledge. But that itself is a philosophical attitude.

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  43. Having been somewhat lax in my blogging activity lately, I never responded to the one comment above addressed to me, and haven't jumped into this thread on any of the other points either.

    First: when I say "content," I don't mean "qualia." As I understand it, "qualia" are mostly sensory in nature (at least that's what I would mean if I were to use the word). It is a word associated with "experience," as in the internal sensations we commonly call perceptions, such as seeing red, smelling broth, feeling cold or heat, etc. "Our visceral experience of being," as Heidegger would describe it. When I say "content," I mean ideas -- the ideational content of our thinking. We can parse all day where, exactly our ideas come from, but my main concern with "content" is what the ideas are, ie, literally what we are saying or thinking, conceptually. E=MCsquared is an idea, for instance -- not a matter of qualia, not an experienced thing. So my point was, it's not a comprehensive understanding of "mind" to reduce it to neurons firing, unless we can literally see the ideas occurring there and account for their creation. Where does a new idea come from? It's not built into the neurons. So unless we can reduce creative thinking to neurons, I'm still a mysterian.

    On the subject of what philosophy is, or the fuzziness of any boundaries between science and philosophy, I am a defender of the idea that science is not all we need to know and in fact, after the hard science is done, even a scientist needs to do philosophy. "How we think about science" (taking a cue from the above conversation) and "how we think about its results" are philosophy. The fact that philosophy has always been about many topics does not preclude definition; it just makes it a complex definition. I see philosophy as both a speculative and an interpretive enterprise. Science can track down facts all day, but until those are interpreted and integrated into our "meaning" web, they're sterile. The uses of any fact are more important than the fact itself. "The universe is very large." No meaning out of context. I am more interested in the ideas prompted by the fact. And I guess that makes me a philosopher.

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  44. And now, since moral theory is my self-appointed bailiwick (LOL) I'll say a word on that.

    I don't take moral philosophy to be primarily about "how to live." I'm more interested in what makes a prescription prescriptive, than what the prescriptions are (which I consider to be cultural). The key to this is justification: how do we justify our actions? What counts as a reason to do, or not do, anything? Most people would agree "killing is wrong" but as soon as we begin qualifying that ("except in self-defense" for instance), we are in the realm of justification. "Killing is wrong" is a noble principle, but philosophy asks in what sense it's a principle and how is it noble, for instance. It turns out we can say a lot about the concept of killing before we ever get to a condemnation of murder. And there, my compatriots, is philosophy. Some people think it's all an exercise in splitting hairs. I think it matters.

    At the same time, academic philosophy in general and modern academic moral theory in particular have become too institutionalized and barren. So I don't belong to any existing school of moral theory. I'm inventing a new one, frankly. And there I leave you, my friends ... welcome to my own blog anytime.

    If I ever stop writing more on other people's blogs than mine, that is. LOL.

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  45. GT Christie,

    I think we have compatable views of philosophy and morality. But I do have a problem with your comment here: "So unless we can reduce creative thinking to neurons, I'm still a mysterian."

    Those aren't the only two options. One can reject the idea that creativity is a wholly neurological phenomenon without embracing a mysterian approach to the philosophy of mind. I'd rather look at creativity in terms of behavior, and not simply in terms of the neurological processes and events which make that behavior possible.

    I don't see anything attractive about the mysterian view, and I don't see any good arguments in its favor.

    Also, I think some philosophers would say that qualia is the content of an idea. That having an idea is having an experience. I don't see a significant difference between your mysterian approach to ideas and the mysterian approach to phenomenal content. It looks like one and the same problem, and I think it stems from regarding ideas/content/qualia as a thing or an event which occurs in a purely causal way. Following Ryle, I don't think ideas/qualia exist in that sense--or, rather, our conception of qualia/ideas is impoverished. It's a mongrel category, neither wholly dispositional nor wholly occurent, and we falter whenever we try to regard it as either one or the other. This does not mean the true nature of ideas/qualia is a mystery. It could just mean that we have two mutually exclusive sets of categories for describing the same phenomena, and we have trouble avoiding the temptation to run them together.

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  46. I probably should stop calling myself a "mysterian" since it throws people off the track of what I'm saying. I simply belong to whatever class of thinkers who say ideas are more than just neurons firing. And in believing that, I do distinguish between the content of an idea ("what it says") and its physical aspects ("how it occurs"). I'm not particularly concerned about how it occurs. But I do think it's a mistake to mix together the notions of "qualia" and "idea." You're right, if the two notions are conflated/mixed, it becomes a mongrel category. To say "we experience our ideas" introduces exactly this kind of hybrid, which then requires a lot of qualifications to keep ideas (E=MCsquared) from becoming an experience. Because of my views on "willing" and "free will," I keep these two notions as separate and distinct as possible. I specifically criticized Heidegger for mixing "thinking" with "qualia," for instance, because it allows him to introduce all sorts of metaphysical "experience of being" rhetoric that (for me) clouds the issue of free will. (Read my twin posts http://hypermoxie.blogspot.com/2010/07/freedom-is-radical.html and http://hypermoxie.blogspot.com/2010/07/make-day.html to see how I rescue free will from the entire history of Western Philosophy -- LOL)

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  47. GC's razor: You can't control what you experience, but you can control what you think.

    That's where I separate qualia from ideas. Your comments are appreciated. =)

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  49. I didn't mean that the mongrel category arises when we conflate qualia with ideas. Rather, I meant to say that the notions of qualia and idea, be they distinct or not, are mongrel categories. The idea of ideas is itself a mongrel category, neither occasional nor dispositional, but a bit of both.

    So, yes, I think we should distinguish between the occurence of a thought (how it happens) and what that thought means (the idea, or the content). So we seem to agree so far.

    My objection is two-fold. First, I don't think thoughts necessarily happen. I think that, when we refer to thoughts as occasions, as events with causes and effects, we are mixing truth with fiction. The notion of thought is a mongrel category, and it is not wholly occasional. Perhaps we can be simpler and say that the distinction between occurrence and content is like the distinction between speech and meaning. I agree that speech is occasional. Words are spoken. This happens.

    The second part of my objection is to the claim that there some kind of great mystery here. The mistake, I think, is in supposing that the content of an utterance must occur in some other way, or in some other place--that, once you've separated the content from the happening (the speech, let's say), you've got to find the content happing somewhere else.

    The content doesn't happen somewhere else. It doesn't exist in that sense. The idea as such--the pure idea, the meaning of the speech or thought--is not thing that happens. It is dispositional--but not completely. This is the problem, I think. Our conception of meanings is mongrelized--we are constantly thinking of meanings in terms of both occurrences and dispositions, but we cannot resolve it into one or the other without absurdity.

    The only mystery, then, is whether or not we can create a better way of talking. Though it would be a mistake to say we need a better way of talking about ideas, because the notion of ideas (or meanings, or thoughts) is exactly what is in need of replacement. (Though "need" is perhaps too strong a word.)

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  50. Well OK but I don't care how an idea happens or where it is. I just care what it says. I am interested in content or meaning as a free and deliberate creation. I don't think ideas are mysterious at all. I just think E=MCsquared is more than neurons firing. So I don't disagree with anything you've said above.

    By the way, Schopenhauer resolved a similar mongrel issue in Kant's epistemology by calling the subject/object distinction just two sides of the same coin. There is not a subject without an object, nor vice-versa, so these are just yin and yang depending on our point of discussion (accounting for the subjectivity of experience vs the object experienced). Kant wanted these to be two different things but Schopenhauer overcame the implied dualism by saying they're the same thing twice). The mongrel, after all, is just a dog.

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  51. Just about the strangest discovery of modern neuroscience (he says, knowing nothing about the subject) is the Halle Berry neuron, discovered by Christof Koch.

    Quote: "Reporting in the June 23 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Nature, the research team finds that individual neurons are able to recognize people, landmarks and objects — even letter strings of names."

    http://www.physorg.com/news4703.html

    The same neuron responds to diverse input (her name, her face), to produce the same answer: why, that's Halle Berry!

    If single neurons can do this sort of thing, what does that do to our theories of consciousness?

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  52. Alan, that reminds me of the effusive eureka uttered by Francis Crick in the 90s when he announced that he had discovered free will in the brain. What his lab actually discovered was a pre-charge in the brain before the movement of a hand, approximately 1/2 millisecond before the movement. The decision to move the hand was not located there, after all, and after further review, Crick consigned his great eureka to the shelf.

    Neuroscientists understand that the brain is an associative organ. There are probably 1000 neurons primed to fire in response to anything even slightly resembling Halle Berry. The fact is that they all light up when any one of them does, along with any other related associations the subject might have experienced in the past (black women, women generally, Catwoman, James Bond, Pierce Brosnan...) In other words, the article represents something of a parlor trick you can do with your MRI. Meh.

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  53. So, it's the cold fusion of neuroscience? Not replicable? Embarrassed backdowns to follow shortly?

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  54. I googled "the ghost in the neuron". Apparently, the phrase has never been used (digitally).

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  55. I will just make a few comments about Jason's last response to me (Oct.31), though I am also interested in what GTChristie and Alan and Jason have been talking about. Jason, I didn't say *morality* was talking about action. I said ethical talk would involve thinking about action rather than thinking about thinking. And yes of course I agree it involves thinking about justifying or condemning etc. certain actions or types of action, in other words looking at them from a moral point of view. Are you using moral philosophy as a synonym for meta-ethics?

    You say you believe there is no theoretical or logical ground for morality or any particular mode of thought or knowledge. I think this is where we might disagree because I accept the point about moral knowledge but I think there are solid grounds for certain modes of knowledge e.g. knowledge of the physical world (provisional as it may be). I don't believe there is an objective moral realm to know (other than psychologically or sociologically), but there is a physical world and a social world.

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  56. Mark, I wouldn't deny that there is a physical or social world. I said I don't think there are any logical or theoretical grounds for any particular modes of thought or knowledge, that's all. That doesn't mean there aren't any grounds for knowledge. We can ground--i.e., justify or defend--our knowledge in all sorts of ways. But these aren't ultimate justifications--they aren't logical or theoretical foundations which would preclude the possibility of further questioning. That's all I meant.

    To answer your question, I wouldn't say meta-ethics is all there is to moral philosophy. And I disagree that ethical talk only involves thinking about action, and not thinking about thinking. Applied ethicists are more balanced in favor of the former, but they wouldn't be philosophers if they divorced their prescriptive analyses from meta-ethical concepts.

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  57. My views are rather different from both Jason's and Mark's (if I understand them). If there is a social world (and there is), then there is a moral world, in my view. The first requirement of any social world is a prohibition of random killing. This is a foundation stone of morality. The social and the moral are intertwined.

    That's why I don't understand the perplexity about so-called meta-ethics that so many philosophers get exercised about.

    The comparison with natural science is a red herring, I think. Both morality and science are rational activities, and so too are many other human enterprises.

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  58. Jason, I am clearer now on what you were claiming about justifying knowledge, and I agree with you. Re applied ethics: I taught a business ethics course for a few years and I tried to give it some philosophical depth (though I think there is a trend towards excluding fundamental thinking from such courses which seem to be going more in the direction of case studies with minimal questioning or space for ethical/critical reflection. I feel unhappy with this tendency.

    I am however still not convinced that moral philosophy as traditionally conceived can constitute a viable research program (just as I am still skeptical about philosophy in general). Perhaps my position vis a vis philosophy is a bit like Wittgenstein's vis a vis religion. He said (I think) that he was not religious but that he couldn't help seeing things from a religious point of view!

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  59. Alan, I suspect there is more (much more!) to this topic than we can deal with here. I agree that the social and the moral are intertwined. And there are if you like objective truths about what kinds of behaviors might be or might not be socially viable. But it seems to me that you can see moral codes as something transcendent (in some sense) or simply as socially generated. I take the latter view. Where do you stand?

    On the comparison between science and morality - I see science as a (relatively) reliable knowledge-building activity. It progresses. Morality is not so much about extending our knowledge as judging and directing behavior. It does not progress in the sense that science does.

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  60. Mark, I wouldn't call philosophy a research program. It doesn't further our factual knowledge; it furthers our conceptual understanding. Of course, you can't have one without the other, but there's a marked difference in both focus and method.

    Alan, I'm not sure where you think we disagree, exactly. Perhaps you take the notion of "world" to have some peculiar entailments. In any case, I'm not sure why you say the first requirement of any social world is the prohibition of random killing. Perhaps this is a requirement, but this (I tihnk) is because of the more fundamental requirement, that individual agency be respected as such. You cannot have a society without agents, and you cannot have agents without granting them certain rights. I've been studying Moby Dick lately, and in it Herman Melville suggests that the primary right or law upon which all others are based is the law of possession. The requirement against random killing could be construed as such, as a requirement against infringing on the right of a person to possess their own body. Just food for thought.

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  61. To answer Mark and Jason together, though far too briefly: rights are generated by cooperation, and social life is the most general form of human cooperation. Thus, I agree with Mark that morality is socially-generated, though there's nothing "simply" about that.

    Jason seems to take individual agency as the source of basic rights. This may be OK if by agency we mean a form of decision-making in a community; if we think of agency asocially then I can't see how that can generate rights. The rule against killing is basic, because it is the condition of our survival.

    Perhaps in disagreement with Mark, I think we can make progress in morality (as we can in any other domain), both in our accepted practices and in our understanding. Philosophy can help with this, in a very small way. It can also hinder, in a small way.

    (Sermon ends here.)

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  62. Alan,

    Can we imagine a society in which people were not limited by the existence of any particular body, but could manifest in other bodies (through some advanced sort of technology)? I think we can. For example, one sci-fi film (was it The 6th Day?) has it that people can not only be cloned, but their minds can be replicated in their clones. So they can die and come back and it's no big deal.

    Perhaps that is unrealistic and not technologically feasible in any possible world. I don't know. But it does not seem inconceivable. To me, that means that random killing is not fundamental to morality; for this world of clones and replicated minds could sustain moral thought.

    Anyway, I do think the concepts of agency and rights are socially constructed--personal identity itself is socially constructed; but i also think we're wired for this sort of social construction. So a person born in the wild, so to speak, might have an impoverished, fractured sense of self, just out of biological necessity, but not the coherent concept of agency that we enjoy.

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  63. Jason, I agree we can imagine something like this. In fact it seems standard in both Eastern and Western religions. Reincarnation is one version, resurrection another.

    In your sci-fi world "killing" might be a mere body-switch. So maybe in that world it would be a minor fact, morally speaking. But in that case a gap would have opened up between killing and our concept of murder. It is murder that is the basic concept, not killing, I think.

    In religions, there is a similar problem. Suicide bombers seem to think they are just doing a body-switch, in a good cause of course. Sensible religions can solve the problem by having a divine sanction against self-slaughter and against the killing of others. But even so, the concept of murder remains basic, since sometimes killing is necessary and justified.

    The term "socially constructed" seems ambiguous to me. It can mean merely "made up by members of a society", which will of course be true of any concept. Or it might mean "designed to make social life possible", which can apply to our moral concepts but will not apply to all our concepts.

    A person might be bought up by wolves or whatever, but their sense of agency and self will be no model for what those ideas mean when we use them. I think we are agreeing on that.

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